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Video: How developers are still fighting their arcade heritage 30 years later Exclusive
August 9, 2012 | By Staff

[Note: To access chapter selection, click the fullscreen button or check out the video on the GDC Vault website]

The industry needs to "unlearn" how it defines games, argued veteran game designer Mark Cerny at last year's GDC Europe while discussing the rise of social and mobile games.

He's had more than a little experience with transitions in the industry, having gone from making classic arcade games like Marble Madness, to working on console platformers like Sonic the Hedgehog 2, and even lending a hand to modern blockbusters like Resistance and Uncharted.

"Unlearning is where you take the lessons that you paid for in blood, and you throw them out and you start all over again," said Cerny. "it's very hard to do. And we now have to do that with what we believe a game to be, those of us who are making those triple-a console titles.

Cerny expects it's going to take developers 20 years to unlearn their current preconceptions of what makes a game (e.g. narrative, death, endings, chances to fail). Why so long? The industry is slow to change, and he says that many developers are still unlearning the lessons of the golden age of the arcade 30 years later.

For example, many of those games were distinguished by being notoriously difficult and killing players willy-nilly. "You had to kill the player once a minute. ... Marble Madness was four minutes long. We needed players to earn that over the course of several months. So that level of difficulty was just required."

He said that because of that mindset, developers would add features in games just to make them harder, and continued making them needlessly difficult or punishing even as games became longer. "The idea is still, for no reason at all, if you aren't dying, it's not a game," Cerny added.

To learn more about Cerny's thoughts on how the industry is changing and needs to change, be sure to watch his full presentation above, courtesy of GDC Vault. Note that GDC Europe will return soon to Cologne, Germany this August 13-14 -- more details on the event and registering online are available here

About the GDC Vault

In addition to all of this free content, the GDC Vault also offers more than 300 additional lecture videos and hundreds of slide collections from GDC 2012 for GDC Vault subscribers. GDC 2012 All Access pass holders already have full access to GDC Vault, and interested parties can apply for the individual subscription Beta via a GDC Vault inquiry form.

Group subscriptions are also available: game-related schools and development studios who sign up for GDC Vault Studio Subscriptions can receive access for their entire office or company. More information on this option is available via an online demonstration, and interested parties can send an email to Gillian Crowley. In addition, current subscribers with access issues can contact GDC Vault admins.

Be sure to keep an eye on GDC Vault for even more free content, as GDC organizers will also archive videos, audio, and slides from upcoming 2012 events like GDC Europe, GDC Online, and GDC China. To stay abreast of all the latest updates to GDC Vault, be sure to check out the news feed on the official GDC website, or subscribe to updates via Twitter, Facebook, or RSS.

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Kristijan Lujanovic
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everybody is talking about arcades but I've recently for reasons unknown replayed my gameboy mono collection. I submit to you dear sir that we abandoned lcd games too soon! I feel like a kid who rediscovered choose your adventure books. also, good talk.

Wylie Garvin
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Every year or two, I find myself replaying my favorite gameboy game which is Metroid II. Either on an emulator or on actual hardware, I've probably played this game from beginning to end 10 times by now. (For SNES its Super Metroid and Zelda 3, both of which I've started many times, but neither of which I've actually finished... hmm.)

On another happy-nostalgia note: for at least 10 years, I've had two gameboys and a game-link cable, but only one Tetris cartridge. A week or two ago on vacation, I finally picked up a second Tetris cartridge so I now have all of the kit needed to replicate a childhood experience I have fond memories of: Playing Tetris head-to-head against other kids after school, or even during lunch hour etc.

kevin williams
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A great session and a great commentary of one mans involvement with the golden age of amusement.

Just some observations – Atari was messed up on a number of levels, a factor after they go taken over by Warner Communication in 1976, and Nolan bailed in ’78. So the issues of infringing game concepts and hardware design seems to point at Atari’s madness better than anything I have heard.
I was a little surprised by Mark’s breakdown of the money split. We worked on the four-way slice:

1. Manufacturer (design-build) 2. Distributor (market-sell) 3. Operator (buy-install) 4. Location (operate collect)

For example the guy in the mall running the machine did not own them but leased them from the operator, who also took a swipe at the repair margin – a factor why amusement never sells to the player but to the operator! Still a great observation.

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Maria Jayne
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I think what games need to do is almost the reverse of what he describes in his talk. Detecting how quickly or easily a player is traversing your levels and achieving their objectives should be an indication that the game needs to step it up to challenge the player.

Instead of risking offending a player having a difficult time, try massaging the ego of a good player by making the difficulty ramp up on the fly. Even if the player realises it's happening, you can't offend someone by telling them they're too good so you're making the game more challenging for them.

James Margaris
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Games without fail states are barely games. Take any classic game of nearly any variety and remove the ability to fail and you most likely have something completely pointless.

Modern gaming is already plagued by "Press A to Win" games.

Ricardo Hernandez
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I love this talk for the perspective it provided through the timeline. But I am a bit surprised that the whole "games systems helping the player" was unilaterally presented as a good thing by Mark - even more so- because he touched on Demon's Souls.

Both Demon's Souls and Dark Souls are game designs that go *precisely* against that trend. They are stoic, uncompromising and if you don't get your act together as a player YOU WILL die and pretty much for the lack of a more refined word- suck.

The game does provide enough space for the player to reflect on the failures, learn and move forward. And when as a payer you know you ringed that Bell in Dark Souls you realize you know you *achieved/earned* something on your own.

While it is definitively very interesting that Demon's Souls/Dark Souls have brought this massive multi player online - single player rpg (the word I have for it- MMO-SP-RPG), and certainly a key aspect to its mood and part of the game play mechanics it is in no way any more or even as essential to the Dark Souls/Demon's Souls Games that they *do not* in any shape or form dynamically adjust difficulty/player setups to hand hold the player through the game.

Take that away from either of the two games and they lost at least 50% of their appeal.

- Ricardo

Note: this doesn't mean I am against the idea that we need to think beyond games = you die mentality. But I am not in the camp that believes player hand holding for a very compelling game design. I think there's room here for excellent games with both approaches.

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Mark Venturelli
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Ok, I was delaying writing an article stating the absolute opposite of what this man is saying here. This motivated me to just do it already!